91 years ago - Ballyraggett garda killed in Clare

Hero in the War of Independence, Garda Thomas Dowling was gunned down on December 28, 1925 as he went about his duty

91 years ago - Ballyraggett garda killed in Clare

By Joe Quealy

Fanore is a beautiful village in the heart of the Burren in North Clare, clinging on to the edges of Galway Bay it nestles into the landscape between the mountain and the sea.

The land area around Fanore and the Burren is rich in nature and one hundred years ago the land was for the greater part owned by absentee landlords. The people of Fanore made their living from the sea, some had small holdings which was given to them by the landlords in turn for herding their lands and stock.

At this time the people of Fanore were begining to fight back and demand the lands be given back to the people of Fanore . A lot of agitation was going on in the village but the greatest tragedy to hit the village of Fanore occurred, not because of land agitation, but because of the terrible curse of the Civil War which began in 1922 and left friend fighting friend and brother fighting brother. The people who fought in the Civil War which began in 1922, had for many years stood shoulder to shoulder fighting British occupation. The Civil war wreaked havoc all over Ireland. The village of Fanore in North Clare was no different. One of the tragedies of the Civil War was

The Murder of Guard Thomas Dowling

On the 28 December 1925 Guard Thomas Dowling was murdered at Craggagh, Fanore. Guard Dowling was stationed at Fanore Garda barracks and was returning there after his patrol had been completed, when his life was taken outside the graveyard wall at Craggagh cemetery. He was 29 years of age and was the only son of John and Mrs Dowling, High St, Ballyragget, Co. Kilkenny. He attended Ballyragget National School and became an apprentice baker. He answered the call to defend his country and took a prominent part in the struggle for self-government. When the Irish Free State was established, he joined the army and held the rank of lieutenant. During the Civil War he was severely wounded in an ambush in Clonmel. He joined the Garda Síochána (Force number 5708) in March 1924, and underwent his training in the Phoenix Park training depot. He was transferred to Fanore Garda barracks in 1925. He was described by his colleagues as a person of quiet and retiring disposition.

At the time of Guard Dowling’s murder a sergeant and four gardai were stationed in Fanore barracks. The barracks in which they were stationed was a three-roomed house built as a labourer’s cottage in the townland of Murrough Tuohy. The house is now owned by the O’Toole family

The story unfolds.

The Christmas season of 1925 in the North Clare village of Fanore was no more unusual than Christmas of previous years. The weather was mild and it was one of the years in which the whitethorn budded early. The old people who judged the weather patterns by nature said that with the early budding of the whitethorn ‘nothing good would come out of it’, meaning that a hard winter and spring would follow. Nothing could have prepared them for what was about to happen in their community. On Christmas morning at St Patrick’s Church in Fanore the parish priest of Ballyvaughan, Fr John Walsh, had made the journey of close on nine miles in horse and trap from Ballyvaughan to say Mass for his congregation. Fanore is in the parish of Ballyvaughan. The congregation came from all walks of life, farmers, fishermen, labourers, and they were joined by members of the gardai who were stationed close by. Fr Walsh led the community in prayer and with heads bowed they celebrated the birth of our Saviour. In his final commendation and Christmas blessing to his flock Fr Walsh wished ‘peace and good will to all mankind.’ Yet within three days a series of events would lead to a terrible atrocity that would shock not only the parish but indeed the whole country and far beyond.

On the night of 28 December 1925 the silence of the coastline at Fanore was shattered. Four gun shots rang out, and after the deathly silence a man lay mortally wounded on the ground. Guard Thomas Dowling had been returning on his bicycle from patrol duty. As he was passing the graveyard at Craggagh, he was ambushed from the corner of a field adjoining the graveyard wall. He died instantly, as part of his body had been blown away; the gunshots fired at him were within very close range and came from a shotgun loaded with slug pellets. He was accompanied by his off-duty colleague, Guard John Cahill, who, on sensing the terrible situation, cycled on hastily to get help for his fallen comrade. As he made haste to get away rifle shots flew past him to his left and right as the ambushers tried to kill him too.

The night had begun as usual for Guard Dowling. He left Fanore Garda barracks some two miles away to do a tour of duty on his bicycle. His tour took him to the western end of the parish: to Derreen and Crimlin, and on finishing his duty at around 9.30pm he called to a house in Derreen where he met his off-duty colleague, Guard Cahill. Both men left the house close to ten o’ clock and proceeded to make their way back to the barracks at Fanore. It was a moonlit night with some clouds running through the face of the moon, giving the odd moment of darkness. There was a fresh breeze blowing, bringing the salt and brine from the nearby Atlantic on to the land, and cutting into the faces of the two policemen as they cycled on their homeward journey. Both were cycling at a leisurely pace but at the graveyard at Craggagh their pace had slackened somewhat because of a hill and a bend on the road. Neither had dismounted from his bicycle; Guard Dowling was next the graveyard wall. Just as they had reached the top of the graveyard hill the peace of the night erupted with rapid gunshots coming from inside the stone wall. Guard Dowling fell immediately, his bicycle falling on him. Guard Cahill got away and was lucky to escape with his life.

On reaching the barracks Guard Cahill informed Sergeant James Smyth of the tragedy. The sergeant, accompanied by a local man who was visiting the station at the time, made his way to the scene of the shooting and found the body of Guard Dowling in a bent-over position. They moved the body to the side of the road and awaited the arrival of the priest and doctor. On arriving at the scene close to midnight Dr Denis O’Dwyer, Ballyvaughan, pronounced Guard Dowling dead at the scene and asked that the body be removed to the barracks at Fanore.

Murder Hunt

The next morning, Tuesday 29 December, a full-scale murder hunt was launched in Fanore. Every house in the village was visited and people were questioned about their movements. Houses were searched; ricks of hay and turf were checked, some being totally taken asunder in search of the guns used in the ambush. Every outhouse and old cabin was reduced to rubble in search of the murder weapons. Close attention was paid to people who had in the recent past been questioned by Guards in the district about the illegal distilling and sale of poteen. The local volunteers involved in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were brought to the barracks for questioning. About a week after the murder, three local people were charged with the murder of Thomas Dowling and were brought before District Justice Dermot Gleeson at Lisdoonvarna District Court, they were remanded in custody to Galway prison to answer the charge.

THE INQUEST

CIVIC GUARD SHOT DEAD

SHOCKING AMBUSH IN NORTH CLARE

RIDDLED WITH SLUGS FROM BEHIND WALL

The inquest into the murder of Guard Thomas Dowling

A murder of a peculiarly atrocious nature was committed on Monday night last near Fanore, the victim being Guard Thomas Dowling, who was shot dead by a party concealed behind a stone wall. The circumstances will be found fully detailed in the report of the inquest given below, but the main details may be summarised here: Guards Dowling and Cahill were stationed in Fanore with two other men and a sergeant. Fanore is situated on the coast opposite the Aran Islands about ten miles from Ballyvaughan and thirty miles from Ennis. It is possibly the bleakest station in the county. Up to recent years it was recognised as a centre for traffic of poteen with the islands; and it is within easy reach of grazing ranches, around which disputes of a more or less serious kind have centred.

On Monday night the Garda named left his station on bicycle patrol and on his return journey was joined by his colleague, Guard John Cahill. They were within a mile of the barracks when the fatal ambush occurred; about three shots were discharged at them within a distance of a few feet. Guard Dowling fell to the ground dead. Guard Cahill cycled on, pursued by further volleys, but succeeded in making his escape uninjured. He reported the affair at Fanore barracks and, subsequently, had to cycle to Ballyvaughan and report at the garda barracks what happened at Craggagh graveyard.

Investigation on Tuesday showed that the ambush had been deliberately arranged. It took place at a bend on the road near a graveyard. The ambushers, who numbered at least three, had arranged seats behind the wall alongside the roadway, and from a distance of a few feet were able to pour their deadly volleys into the guards. Guard Dowling apparently received a full charge in the right side, and a minor wound in the right shoulder. Rifles and shotguns seem to have been used as an empty rifle cartridge was found on the ground. Judging from the wound received by the victim, it would appear that the shotgun cartridges were emptied of the shot and refilled with bits of a broken pot; these were discharged into the unfortunate guard with results that must have been almost immediately fatal.

The victim was a native of Ballyragget, Co Kilkenny, and joined the guards only in March 1924. In November of the same year he was sent from the depot to Fanore, where he was reported to have been very popular. He had been a lieutenant in the National Army and had fought with distinction during the Black and Tan war. He was twenty-nine years of age. The poignancy is that at Christmas he had sent to his fiancée, a lady residing at Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, a pendant as a gift. Arrangements for their early marriage were under consideration.

Jury sworn in

An inquest was held by Dr J.H. Counihan, Coroner, in Fanore on Wednesday, when the following jury were sworn: Messrs Thomas McCarthy, foreman; Patrick McNamara, John Burke, Patrick McCormack, Joseph Casey, John Doherty, Martin Gilligan, Anthony O’Donoghue, Joseph McNamara, William Driscoll, Thomas Driscoll, John Miniter and John Burns. Sergeant James Smyth, Fanore, was the first witness called. He deposed he knew the deceased guard for thirteen months. He last saw him alive about 7.00 o’clock on the evening of the 28 December. He was aged 29 years and single. When witness last saw him, he was in his usual state of good health, was sober, and was due to set out on patrol duty. He saw him again at about 10.00pm the same night at Craggagh. He was then dead. Guard Dowling was alone going on duty. When witness saw the body, it was partly bent, with the bicycle lying on top of it. He noticed blood on the deceased’s face. Examination of the place subsequently revealed signs of an ambush, and according to tracks witness formed the conclusion that there were about three concerned in the attack. It was a dark night at the time he found the remains but previous to this there was moonlight. From the appearance of the tracks witness also concluded that Guard Dowling was cycling at the time he met his death. Replying to the Coroner, Sergeant Smyth said he did not know of anyone having ill-feeling towards the guard, he was very popular with everyone in the district. The foreman asked the witness if he concluded there was a motive for the crime, to which he replied that, so far, they did not find any motive.

Guard John Cahill, Fanore, deposed he remembered the 28 December. He left his station on recreation at 8.00pm on that evening. He went to the house of Joseph McNamara, Derreen, and remained there one hour and fifty minutes. While there Guard Dowling, the deceased, called and both left at the same time, about ten minutes to ten, to return to barracks. The distance was about two and a half miles. On leaving McNamara’s both mounted their bicycles and cycled along, passing Craggagh graveyard. Four shots rang out. Guard Dowling was on the graveyard side of the road from where the shots rang out. The shots were quite close - about six yards. Guard Dowling fell off his machine and moaned; witness did not fall. The first shots fired were from shotguns. When Guard Dowling fell from his machine, Guard Cahill looked to the right and saw him lying on the road; he did not dismount. Another shot rang out, he quickened his pace. He saw a man standing inside the ditch and another man a yard nearer the road; it was cloudy at the time and witness could not identify either of the two men. The first man was middle-sized about 5 ft 8 or 5ft 9 inches and carried a gun. He did not notice any weapon with the second man. As witness cycled away, three more shots were fired, and he heard the click of the bolt of a rifle and subsequently a rifle shot that passed in his direction. His belief was that the concealed party tried to kill him too. Witness reached the barracks and reported the matter to the Sergeant, who proceeded to the scene. Neither witness nor Guard Dowling was armed on the occasion.

Patrick McNamara, a member of the guards stationed in Dublin Castle and on holidays at the time, deposed: He remembered Monday night when he was at the barracks in Fanore. He accompanied Sgt Smyth to the scene of the shooting, and on arrival there saw Guard Dowling lying on the roadside. He was lying on the graveyard side of the road and his body was partly bent up. His bicycle was thrown over him. He was dead at the time. There was blood all over his head and face. He and the Sergeant moved the body off the road and awaited the arrival of the priest and doctor. Witness knew of no reason why Guard Dowling should be targeted, because he was very popular in the district.

Dr Denis O’Dwyer. Ballyvaughan, stated that he saw the deceased on the night of the 28 December between 11.30pm and midnight inside the wall at Craggagh:

He was dead, and I ordered him to be removed to the barracks. I examined him and found the outer coat to be perforated on the right side under the shoulder, and all his inner clothing, when the body was exposed. I found about thirty- five penetrating wounds right under the shoulder; and on the lower part of the chest about twenty- five. I should say they were two different shots. Each varied in size from a pinhead to a three- penny bit-as if they were homemade. I made a post-mortem examination today with Dr Pearson and found the body well nourished and healthy. Three ribs were fractured - the third, fourth and fifth, and also the ninth and tenth on the right side. The right lung was perforated and the right and left auricles of the heart. The liver and right kidney were also lacerated. In the pericardium and also in the left lung were found the pellets produced and also in the right pleural cavity. The foreman examined the missiles found on the body and said they were homemade.

The witness continued that there was no sign of a bulky wound. Death was due to shock and haemorrhage, the result of the wounds described.

Dr Daniel Pearson, Lisdoonvarna, corroborated, adding that many more pellets were found besides the four extracted. The coroner, Dr C ounihan, said he had not the least doubt that the jury would vindicate their oaths by bringing in a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown. The circumstances of this case were so atrocious that he thought they ought to do more.

He thought they ought to call on the people of the parish and surrounding districts to assist the civic guards by giving them any evidence which might lead to the apprehension of the murderers.

During the late terrors there were very few Irishmen who would make a deadly assault on an unarmed person; and he thought it extraordinary that any man should wait until now to make such a terrible attack on a man who was their friend and protector. This crime was a challenge to the law, to the rights of self- government, and to the advance of civilisation, and he trusted that their verdict would do something to vindicate these things. The government would do everything possible in the way of men and money to bring the culprits to justice, but the jury could assist by bringing in a proper verdict.

The jury’s verdict

After a short retirement the jury brought in the following verdict:

We find that Guard Thomas Dowling died from shock and haemorrhage on the 28 December according to the doctor’s evidence. His death was due to wilful murder by some person or persons unknown. We call on all law-abiding people, in this and the surrounding district, to give their aid to the authorities to bring those cowardly culprits to justice. We consider this the most brutal murder that has taken place in Ireland for years.

The coroner said he thoroughly agreed with the verdict, and he was sure they would tender their most sincere sympathy to the grief-stricken father and relatives in their great affliction. Chief Supt. O’Duffy said that on behalf of the Commissioner and the guards he wished to join in the expression of sympathy to the family and relatives of the deceased. Guard Dowling had been foully murdered while protecting property in Fanore. He was an inoffensive, upright, honest man, beloved by his comrades and commanded the respect of the people of the locality. He was satisfied that practically one hundred per cent of the people of the county condemned in the strongest manner this dastardly outrage which had stained the fair name of the county. He appealed to all with the sense of civic spirit to assist him in bringing the cowardly assassins to justice. The foreman said that as a resident of the district he could not understand the reason for this outrage. The guard that was killed was beloved by everybody and he could not understand the reason for his murder. After the inquest the coffin containing the remains was conveyed by road to Ballyragget, Co. Kilkenny. On it was laid a wreath from the Superintendent and the guards of the Ballyvaughan district. The last sad journey was made in a blinding blizzard of rain and wind which swept the bleak hillside. Burial took place in Ballyouskill cemetery, Co, Laois.

Deputy Commissioner Coogan gave the graveside oration.

People had conspired to murder Guard Dowling in order to terrorise the Civic Guards from carrying out their duties. However, he has hailed the force’s commitment to the cause. If we fail, we will have failed in a noble duty. Mr Dowling is the sixth member to be killed in the line of duty since Independence and since the Civic Guards were established in 1922. To his heartbroken family we extend our most sincere sympathies.

PARISH IN TURMOIL

That it was the ‘wrong man’ who was killed was the feeling locally when the news of Guard Dowling’s murder spread throughout the parish- which may lead one to believe that there was a ‘right man’ to be murdered in the parish. The background to the murder of Guard Dowling took a strange twist with the people from the parish resorting to complete silence. There was a political divide in the parish at this time, as indeed was the case in every parish, town and city all over Ireland. The Free State army and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were at loggerheads in the Civil War.

There had been a lot of agitation between families on both sides of the divide and it was the belief of everyone at the time, in the parish and beyond, that the target on the night was a local man, who was a supporter of the Free State and was then a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

He was the man whom it was intended to kill on that night, he was home on leave at the time and had in the past often accompanied the local guards on patrol duty in the parish. There had been conflict between families in the parish for some time. The conflict between the families started when some local IRA sympathisers were taken into the barracks at Lisdoonvarna for questioning. They were treated rather harshly by the Free State soldiers - some of whom came from Fanore- and this led to bad feeling between the families. In the village of Fanore there was no evidence of an active unit of either the IRA or the Free State; both sides had sympathisers but there was no evidence of either side having guns, ammunition or explosives. The nearest active units were in neighbouring Ballyvaughan, in which parish Fanore is. There were two active units in nearby Lisdoonvarna and Toovahera. The Toovahera unit was probably one of the most active in the country with people from the neighbouring townland of Kilmoon taking an active part. Evidence at the trial of Guard Dowling showed that the local IRA sympathisers in Fanore had to borrow a gun from a neighbour the night before the fatal shooting. There were strong suspicions locally that the ambush on the night Guard Dowling was killed was carried out by members of the IRA from the Toovahera-Kilmoon brigade. Of course this was never proved and nobody from these areas was ever charged with the murder.

NOT GUILTY

The three men charged with the murder of Guard Thomas Dowling were found not guilty in the Criminal Court in Dublin.